Monday, August 01, 2011

The Moving Middle, Or Why Republicans Should Not Listen To Weicker

Some years ago Bill Buckley, the founder of National Review, was traveling in Ireland and found himself in a pub talking to a few convivial Irishmen – Is there any other kind? – about religion. Mr. Buckley later noted that many of his conversations while in Ireland, no matter on what topic they started, sooner or later ascended to religion. Ireland was, after all, the nursery bed of Christianity following the collapse of the ancient pagan regime.

In the course of the conversation, someone mentioned a prominent Irish atheist, astonishing Mr. Buckley, who asked, “Do you mean to tell me there are atheists in Ireland?”

“There are, indeed,” he was informed. “But you must understand that in Ireland there are two kinds of atheists – Protestant and Catholic.”

Mr. Buckley is rightly credited with having launched and shaped the modern American conservative movement. Within the conservative movement, there are now many mansions: traditional conservatives, neo-conservatives, paleo-conservatives, fiscal conservatives, religious conservatives, bio-conservatives, social conservatives, libertarian conservatives, and more.

Over the course of the last half century, conservativism has transformed the Republican Party, and that transformation has changed the meaning of some political terms. We think of the terms left, right and center as ideological constants. But these terms also evolve. Unfortunately for some, memory does not evolve.

Just as the modern Republican Party is not your daddy’s Republican Party, so the center of Republicanism is not what it was in your daddy’s day. Within the modern Republican Party today – even here in a reliably left of center state – there are different kinds of moderates, but nearly all the moderates are conservative moderates.

The same general evolution has occurred within the Democratic Party. The steady drift of the party towards progressivism has moved the traditional center of the party to the left. When Senator Joe Lieberman's term expires, Connecticut will have bid goodbye to its last moderate or centrist congressional Democrat. Within Democratic Party precincts, the center has moved to the left. Within the Democratic Party in Connecticut, nearly all moderates are progressive moderates.

The distance between the party ships passing in the night is greater than it was in your daddy’s day. When a modern progressive Democrat thinks of a moderate, Mr. Lieberman, a Scoop Jackson Democrat, does not come to mind. When a modern conservative Republican thinks of a moderate, former Senator and Governor Lowell Weicker, a self described “Jacob Javitts Republican,” does not come to mind.

Commentators within Connecticut’s left of center media, bowing and scraping before the idol of centrism, the holy and imperishable “vital center,” sometimes forget to tell their ideological parishioners that even centers move.

That is why Republicans in Connecticut should take Mr. Weicker’s advice with a ton of salt – and not just because Mr. Weicker during his day was a left of center Republican who shamelessly used his party as a political foil to curry favor with the more numerous Democrats in his state.

During a recent gathering of independent centrists in Hartford, Mr. Weicker cautioned Republicans that they must move to the center if they hoped to win elections. Connecticut, Mr. Weicker said, is a blue state. He might have said, more clearly, that the Connecticut Republican Party must become more like the Democratic Party to win elections; that strategy was, after all, the secret of Mr. Weicker’s own success in politics, until both Democratic and Republican centrists tired of Weicker and voted for his Democratic Party opponent, Mr. Lieberman, who fancied himself, like Mr. Weicker, a centrist.

It should surprise no one when members of the ancient regime are smitten with nostalgia for the familiar ancient order of things. But the order of things has changed. Mr. Weicker’s cast off party little resembles Connecticut’s new Republican Party – because the center of things has changed. Had the center not changed to allow for changed circumstances, it could not hold.

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